Friday, 29 April 2016

X The Unknown (Leslie Norman, 1956)

(as with The Earth Dies Screaming, below, this was originally written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems.

Capitalising (literally) on the success of the previous year’s X-rated The Quatermass Xperiment, X The Unknown looked not to outer space for the source of its invasive threat, but to deep within the earth, from where a primordial being has been awakened by an army troop’s radiation detection training. Called in to deal with the mystery is Professor Royston, a scientist at the nearby Lochmouth Atomic Institute; a man who spends more time in his shed on his makeshift meccano, pulleys and wireless experiments in neutralising atomic energy safely (or ‘disintegrating atomic structure obviating the resultant explosion’, as he puts it, to the consternation of a visiting investigator) than on his work, he thereby arouses the ire of the Institute’s pompous boss (a nicely fussy Edward Chapman).

After radiation is then sucked from a container of trinium in Royston’s locked and barred workshop, he realises that what he is dealing with is beyond the bounds of his experience, although not his reason. ‘Whoever it was came in here must have been most unusual,’ he says. And unusual it certainly is, the threat in this case coming from a seething black radioactive gloop that spreads its way across the countryside from its home in a Scottish bog (in reality the Gerrard’s Cross Sand & Gravel pits), from where it has been rudely awakened. Royston surmises that it is a being of pure energy which feeds on energy. Unpersuaded by this reading of the situation however, the army, with a ‘these scientists you know’ approach, decide to give it a good licking from their flamethrowers, topping the fissure off with a skim of concrete for good measure. The predictable of course occurs and the creature is soon on the loose again, heading for the Atomic Energy Institute for ‘the biggest meal of its life’. Suddenly, Royston’s backyard experiments need to be pressed into urgent use.

The characterisation of Professor Royston is interesting. Although the name ‘Quatermass’ could not be used – his creator Nigel Kneale, disappointed at Hammer turning his pioneering scientist into, as he put it, ‘a creature with a completely closed mind’ through their use of American actor Brian Donlevy in the title role of the film version of The Quatermass Xperiment, refused permission – Professor Royston is a Quatermass figure in all but name. And Dean Jagger, in his beanie hat and overcoat, fills his character’s boots convincingly. A previous Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actor in Twelve O’ Clock High), brought in to give the picture some box-office prominence in America, he is a man who actually looks as if he knows one end of a geiger counter from the other. He is sympathetic, quizzical, courteous, and with a slightly distracted gleam in his eye. He really lends the picture some class. It was a nice touch to give him a walking stick as a prop too; he uses it well, stroking the floor with it when he is being reprimanded by his boss, using it to open the door of the ruined tower, sweeping a dangerous canister out of Old Tom’s reach (but crucially, waking him with his hand), using it to wave goodbye. He’s endearingly fallible too, responding ‘I don’t know’ repeatedly to questions, while still retaining an air of scientific authority. And any man who can say the line ‘how do you kill mud?’, not just with a commendably straight face, but convincingly, is well worth his salary.

As for the monster – and, in passing, it’s worth noting that the United Artists renamed The Quatermass Xperiment as The Creeping Unknown in the US – there are only so many times you can get away with wide-eyed dread on people’s faces before you actually have to show the thing, which initially bubbles out of its crack in a vaguely reptilian spawn. (Early attempts at visualization had apparently involved tapioca.) It found favour with the producers not least because of its suitability for budgetary constraints; ‘we wouldn’t have to build any space ship sets, which were inclined to be large and expensive’, said production manager and screenplay writer Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s screenplay took contemporary concerns about nuclear leakage from power plants as one source for his screenplay but, in spite of lines such as Royston’s ‘as long as this thing feeds, it will live, and the more it lives, the more it will grow’, it’s straining things to call X The Unknown a salutary nuclear parable. When asked why he wrote it this or that way, Sangster’s reply was, invariably, ‘for wages’.

It’s hard to know what more you could feasibly require of the film. As well as an original monstrous threat, it has a maverick scientist, a sceptical boss and his clean-cut heroic son, even a pipe-smoking major. And Leo McKern in a very early role, which sees him adopt a pretty fair private eye act (Mr McGill) in his trilby and overcoat. He is a sturdy and respectful presence, not easily swayed from his task of investigating the curious goings-on for the UK Atomic Energy Commission (Internal Security Division). Then there are the specific local details that add so much to the experience of watching the films now – the warning poster for Fowl Pest in the Police station for example – and some rather lovely location photography, from Gerald Gibbs, which nicely captures the hazy light of frosty, early spring days. It has a score from James Bernard too, whose music seethes and boils, as if, deprived of his usual resource of a named horror to build a musical theme around, he concentrated on the movement of the black mousse. Then there the film’s ‘blink-and-you-miss-them, did-I-really-see-that moments?’ – a grotesquely ballooning finger, a melting face – which caused Hammer some of their many problems with the British Board of Film Censors.

I do have one quibble though. Not about the cavalier disregard for a radiaoactive substance which seems to be selective about its victims – that’s practically a film convention – but about a line from the vicar as he is trying to shepherd his parishioners into his church. ‘Come on, it’s nice and warm inside’, he says. There are many things I can believe, but not that.

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